You only think you've read everything that's gone on in the NBA over the past two weeks, but you haven't. What if I told you a Pau Gasol phone call set the wheels in motion to kill the Lakers' deal for Chris Paul? Or that Dan Gilbert wasn't the worst whiner among small-market owners? Put your feet up -- we'll get to it all. This is a narcissist's feast. I hope you’re hungry.
Here is the cast of characters. Some you knew were involved in yet another huge NBA scandal ... and some you probably didn't know were playing key roles.
NBA Commissioner David Stern: Purveyor of The Big Lie of 2011.
Stern's right hand: Deputy commish Adam Silver.
Stern's current Makers: Cleveland Cavalier owner Dan Gilbert, Orlando Magic owner Rich DeVos and other small-market NBA owners.
Supporting Cast: Lakers owner-in-waiting Jim Buss, agent Arn Tellem, New Jersey Nets owner Mikhail Prokhorov, Agent Dan Fegan.
The Sidewalk Chalk Bodies: Chris Paul, Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, Andrew Bynum, New Orleans Hornets G.M. Dell Demps, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin, Goran Dragic, the Lakers organization (more specifically G.M. Mitch Kupchak) and their fans, the Houston Rockets organization and their fans, and more.
First, according to a tip from an agent source but without confirmation from the Magic or the Lakers: The Lakers had figured out a way to bring both Chris Paul and Dwight Howard to Los Angeles to play with Kobe, forming an even better Big Three than the trio in Miami. It seems there were deals in place. What I'm unsure about is how the hell the Lakers could have pulled off the Howard portion of the deal after having moved Gasol and Odom for Paul. Was it Bynum, the two hottest Laker girls and a lifetime supply of bug spray? (Those of you who have been to Orlando in the summer know about those basketball-sized mystery insects. It’s like living in a Hitchcock movie.)
But it makes sense, since the Lakers probably didn't like the Paul trade as a stand-alone. What I suspect was, once the Paul deal was complete, Howard would say that the only team he would sign an extension with was the Lakers. At that point, the Magic would have to take Bynum and whatever else the Lakers could fit in a box.
On Dec. 8, after news of the Chris Paul deal broke on the same day a baseball club announced they were changing their name to the Los Angeles Angels of Albertheim (I've trademarked Albertheim, don't even try), Gasol allegedly immediately complained to his agent, Arn Tellem. As soon as word came down that he was headed to Houston, Pau, who loves L.A. and didn’t want to leave, was on the phone. Tellem, as any top-notch agent would, tried to help one of his best clients stay in L.A. He opened his drawer and pulled out his Batphone. According to a source, Tellem hotlined more than one SMO (small-market owner) and told them to raise hell with the league office. He knew it would ignite Cavs owner Dan Gilbert to write another classic Hallmark card blasting the deal.
But what I hear from one NBA source is that it was Rich DeVos in Orlando who made the most noise. If you read between the lines, you can see all the self-interests at work. Gasol didn't want to be part of Houston's rebuild, even if the Rockets did sign Nene to join him, which wasn't a lock (Nene has since re-upped with Denver). Tellem wanted to demonstrate that he has the power to help his best clients escape the inescapable. If the Paul-to-the-Lakers deal were to get killed, Tellem would look like Houdini. DeVos wanted to do anything he could to keep Howard long term, and if Paul was headed to Los Angeles, he knew Dwight was next. Orlando's only chance: Help scuttle the Paul deal. So DeVos, who had already lost Shaquille O'Neal to the Lakers in 1996, unleashed his 15-year-old wrath on Stern. The Commish miscalculated, thinking he had no choice but to take it.
Now, as for The Man Formerly Known as a Great Sports Commissioner: You would think Stern and Adam Silver wouldn't mind Paul and Howard playing alongside Kobe as he heads into his last few productive seasons. These superteams drive ratings, which lead to bigger TV deals, and a chance to expand the reach of NBA TV, the league-owned network. But this isn't 2000, and it's not even 2010. Stern is no longer secure, having to answer to a newly energized, tight-knit group of SMO's. The SMO's tried to blow up the season, then wait until the summer to institute franchise tags and a hard cap, a la the NFL. They settled for taking a larger chunk of big-market dollars in revenue sharing, as Stern cajoled and convinced them to accept the new deal and save what's left of 2011-12. He owed them, and killed the Lakers' future. While maybe true that Stern didn't love the deal for the Hornets, the truth is, he knew that if Paul were wearing a Laker uniform, Howard would eventually, too. If that happened, the SMO’s would go crazy and dangle Stern from the Brooklyn Bridge.
After nixing the trade, Stern and Silver looked like Bozo the Clown and Barney Fife after having declared for a year that Dell Demps had autonomy to make deals as any other G.M. would, separate from NBA business. Now Stern and Silver were obviously lying to the NBA fan base, the Lakers, Hornets and Rockets, and most of all, Chris Paul, who deserved the chance to play for any team he'd want to in free agency next year.
It wasn't just a little white lie. It was the kind of lie where you lose all future credibility. He blamed "Basketball Reasons." Even if he could get a better deal, which he eventually did from the Clippers, Stern changed the rules on the fly. By comparison, the lying made Pinocchio's nose look smaller than Bruce Jenner's. It was the SMO's bitching him out for allowing another superteam to form like an Oklahoma tornado out of nowhere on an otherwise sunny May afternoon.
This stinks for NBA fans, not just Lakers and Rockets fans, because just like the Tim Donaghy betting scandal that allegedly compromised playoff games, it's bad when a sports commissioner lies to you. It means the game you love is dishonest. And there's no revising history. There's no going back.
It's worse when fans support the product with hard earned dollars, suspending belief every off-season that their team has a chance to win. It's hard to believe Stern, as egomaniacal as he is, could be so condescending to the fan base and its players. This lie is like finding pictures of your girlfriend naked in bed with another man, and she blames "Photoshop Reasons."
Stern, in prepping (some would say praying) for a sale of New Orleans, wants the Hornets to have low-cost, short-term financial commitments and young players. What doesn't add up is, with the new collective bargaining agreement, each team, the Hornets included, is forced to stay within 85 percent of the cap for the first two years, 90 percent thereafter. So the "Basketball Reasons" actually translate, automatically, into keeping the small market owners such as Gilbert from believing they really are the Washington Generals. It also translates into having enough teams work as viable television draws so people aren't watching TNT pregame shows just to see Charles Barkley, then coming back for the last two minutes of games. Maybe.
Stern's lying is so transparent, season-ticket holders in Los Angeles and around the league believe he has finally gone too far. You see it in social media. If Twitter runs the world, then Stern's funeral is set for Christmas Day, because he has been absolutely murdered in the Twittersphere. And Silver, his deputy, is an accomplice. If Silver doesn't think this will stick with him when he takes over, then he's not as smart as he seems.
The credibility of the league is forever tarnished. The Lakers' championship chances have been unfairly diminished, and outside of league rules. You might not feel too bad for fans that have enjoyed five titles in the past 12 seasons, but everyone is playing within the same roster restrictions. It's not L.A.'s fault that you can play golf in December, watch the sun set over the ocean, see beautiful women everywhere, and eat great food. Oh, and play in front of Jack, Denzel, Magic and Leo. Players like that, and why not?
The owners who bought teams in fun cities like Cleveland and Detroit have a tougher sell to be sure, but they bought teams in those cities. Nobody put a gun to their heads. And by the way, now that the revenue sharing is much steeper, the Lakers are very upset. They have worked so hard to win 10 championships since 1980, and cultivate a successful business model. Now their reward is to give away millions of dollars per season to guys like Gilbert. This is one place where you'll find the Lakers and Mark Cuban on the same team.
It's also one of the reasons Gilbert went crying to mommy. The Lakers were going to reduce their cap hit with the Paul trade. That's what makes the SMO's who complained so hypocritical. On the one hand, in the new deal, they want the big-market teams to reduce their payroll to level the playing field. On the other hand, the SMO's didn't want the Lakers to reduce with that trade because it saved them about $21 million in payroll! That's money that gets distributed to teams under the cap. If the Lakers reduce, the pot is a lot smaller. The SMO's have to learn they can't have it both ways.
Stern presided over this mess, and now it's time to retire. It's never graceful when someone who's been in power too long begins to make mistakes, small or large. Vin Scully is perhaps the greatest broadcasting storyteller in America, but as he has passed 80 years of age, Vinny has occasionally made some mistakes he never would have in his younger days. Calling him out in L.A. would be blasphemy, but yes, even the beloved Vinny has stayed too long. And ask Saddam Hussein or Moammar Gadhafi about staying too long (no, I'm not comparing Stern to those two former dictators -- just simply pointing out that you stay too long and you might regret having passed up that cushy buyout, getting the DirecTV sports package and a vacation home).
Next up on the chopping block is Jim Buss. A lot of Laker fans are afraid he's the next McCourt. He angered his breadwinner, Kobe Bryant, last spring when he picked Mike Brown as the next coach without consulting Kobe. Now, Buss has pissed Kobe off again by trading Lamar Odom for what appears to be money. That hasn't been the Laker way, but these are new times. And Buss didn't just trade Odom. He traded him to the team that swept the Lakers in the second round of the playoffs last season. If you analyze the Odom-to-the-Mavericks deal, on one hand, it looks like there must still be something up the Lakers' sleeve regarding Howard. My sources tell me that L.A. is still D12's preferred destination, over New Jersey and Dallas, no matter what he says publically. And hopefully for everyone's sake, including Stern's, it happens, because it comes the closest to squaring the situation. But on the other hand, it's not a lock. Howard is officially off the market, which just means the Magic isn't trading him this week.
Though exact numbers aren't available, the early playoff exit cost the Buss family millions of dollars in lost revenue, since the Western Conference Finals and NBA Finals weren't played at Staples. Had they beaten the Mavs, the Lakers could have seen double-digit millions in additional profit, depending on how deep the team played. However, they couldn't beat Dallas with Odom and moving him saves the Lakers $34.2 million of salary and cap tax this season and next. The number is a bit smaller since they filled the spot with Josh McRoberts. However, it's still a lot less costly with Odom off the roster. Laker fans (I'm one of them) are spoiled and not used to a straight salary dump. But this is a new collective bargaining agreement, with extravagant cap fines and higher revenue sharing, and Lakers fans won't want that passed along in the form of dramatically higher ticket prices.
Laker fans question dealing Odom instead of hanging on to him as a carrot for Howard. But the team had knowledge of what Orlando wants in a deal. If they were close and Odom was a piece of the puzzle, he'd have remained in purple and gold for the time being. But keeping him would have been risky. Dallas was trying to sign Nene, and may not have been able to take on Odom's contract, so the Lakers had to move fast if they were going to save those tax dollars. Also, Lakers fans have to realize that the team may need the cap space next summer. Though it would be pure stupidity, there's a chance Orlando really does hang on to Howard for the full season. The Lakers could then find a way to sign Howard after trading Bynum for a guard.
No matter what people tell you, this can't be easy for Kupchak. He's been a magician since taking over for Jerry West. He withstood intense criticism for the way the team was blown up in 2004, and has had Jim Buss trying to take credit for all the good that’s happened since, including the Pau trade and the championships. Throw in the Kobe Colorado fiasco and fresh impending divorce, and Kupchak deserves a Staples Center statue just for putting up with it. It looks like Mitch had a great new era in waiting for the Lakers, and instead, Stern put the kibosh on it. I don't know how much Mitch has slept in the last few days, but let's just be glad it's not West in the front office, or we'd have had to keep him away from sharp objects -- and maybe Stern.
As for Howard and his agent Dan Fegan, the Magic believe they have undeniable proof of an alleged Fegan meeting in Miami with the Nets, and that Howard did attend. We'll see. I'm not sure the Magic really care -- it just wants the best deal if it can't keep D12 -- and I know Mikhail Prokhorov isn't scared of a tampering charge. Hell, that’s the warm-up for a Russian presidency run. (What's that? There's a ticking package at my front door from an M. Prokhorov? Hey, Mr. P, I didn't mean anything by that. Our U.S. presidential campaigns are just as corrupt.)
Any league-imposed fine for Prokhorov would be like trimming a toenail, but a draft pick would be much worse. There's no way Stern denies the Nets a shot to trade for Howard. Do we really think that would happen when the Nets are trying to open a new arena next fall in ... The Big Apple (yes, Brooklyn counts). Stern could retire happy when the Knicks and Nets play in the Eastern Conference Finals.
As far as the Chalk Bodies, Pau Gasol, Andrew Bynum, Luis Scola, Kevin Martin and Goran Dragic are all still with teams that thought they had traded them. Bynum is included here only because everyone had him going to Orlando after the New Orleans deal closed. Paul's season is revived with the Clippers, a team that is thrilled to have him. The super-sensitive Odom will be fine in Dallas too. All the other players have been forced to stay and to their credit, they've been very professional about it. Dell Demps is the emasculated G.M. leading the Hornets. In a league full of G.M.'s who envision themselves as big Johnson swingers, Demps is now a eunuch. He must have liked the lockout a lot better than this.
Can Stern save face? Probably not. Has Silver, an intelligent heir to the throne, been too tarnished to replace Stern? Probably not, because he stood with the SMO's and smooched too. Will the Lakers have another Superman from Orlando? (I'm skeptical, only because, as one source told me, it's "very personal" for DeVos. After losing Shaq to L.A., he doesn't want to go through that again, even in a trade. Hopefully he'll remove emotion from the equation, weigh what's best for Orlando fans and make the best deal possible for Howard.)
Will the Rockets chemistry go up in smoke? Will Demps have the balls to walk, tell Stern what he can do with his Hornets, and hope for another job in the business, even if Stern tries to blackball him? Everyone in the business would toast Demps if he returns the favor and emasculates Stern publicly. Don't count on it though.
It has been an amazing two weeks. One thing's for sure. Stern, or Kaiser Soze, or Little Napoleon, cannot set foot in Staples Center when the Lakers are playing, unless he's handing them a championship trophy. And even then, while I'm not encouraging it, you'd have to believe there'd be a pie in the face. Flavor? Revisionist Bitter Lemon.
-- Rick Schwartz is a television producer in Los Angeles. Follow him on Twitter @Rick_Schwartz.
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